I hosted a prestigious lecture a couple of years ago, as the Founder of Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT), by an eminent Tiger biologist and he had got me thinking.
“Even today,” he had said, “With well over 200,000 square kms of forests still left in India, and at a density of 5 tigers per 100 square kms, India could still have 10000 tigers left in its forests. Today there are not many more than a thousand wild tigers left.”
At the last count Bandhavgarh had an extraordinary density of Tigers within the small 120km Tala tourism zone, 20 individuals to be exact, four times the usual density, but not dissimilar to other tourism zones in other well visited parks in India’s extraordinary arsenal of protected areas, including Ranthambhore, Kaziranga, Pench and Corbett. TOFT had also calculated that B2, a resident male Tiger in Bandhavgarh, had generated over £20 million in direct tourism revenue to the local economy over his lifetime; an extraordinary sum. It made keeping B2 alive, far more valuable than having him grace some rich man’s hall.
So why in this ‘Year of the Tiger’, was tourism so often being blamed for the collapse in tiger numbers?
As TOFT advocates, as opposed to tourism being the perceived problem, could it not in fact be the perfect answer to saving the species and its forests? I recall Dian Fossey’s prediction that the Mountain Gorillas would be extinct before the turn of this century, but as a leading primatologist once said to me, ‘The one thing that has protected the Mountain Gorillas, which Dian didn’t foresee, was the goldmine of Gorilla Tourism.’ I have been privileged to see millions of acres of overgrazed Maasai landscape restored to wildlife through private partnerships, Herero community owned conservancies stuffed with lions and oryx fashioned from parched Namibian deserts and Zambian National parks recovered from mass poaching in the 1980’s through public/private tourism partnerships, all driven by the economics of the wildlife tourist’s dollars.
So all is not lost for the Tiger? No, there is already a proven method of turning back the clock. But this time it must be much better, more responsible, better structured nature tourism, with greater vision and commitment from Government and all nature tourism operators.
There is an old maxim ‘If it pays, its stays’. Nature tourism pays handsomely to see wildlife and pristine wilderness. Today there is a rapidly growing domestic leisure market, over 250 million middle class Indians, all keen to see a Tiger in the wild. Let’s use them and their moneybags to save the Tigers forests.
TOFT was set up seven years ago to do just this. It’s a travel trade based campaign, to advocate, endorse and support this more responsible and inclusive approach to wildlife tourism by all stakeholders in forest and tiger conservation; the Government, the accommodation and tourism operators, the travellers and crucially the local communities. Today the campaign has over 140 corporate Indian and International members, all involved in delivering better wildlife tourism in its many Tiger reserves.
On the Go Tour’s yearly donations to the campaign have allowed TOFT to become a real force for change in the industry, as TOFT has been able to develop a lodge audit scheme (look out for PUG audited lodges), run training workshops, an Awards programme and Kids in the Park days, and support local community projects in and around a number of Tiger reserves.
In September On the Go generously funded high level field training for a Park guide on a 6 week residential field studies course in Madhya Pradesh.
We believe this will have real impact on the quality of guiding over the next season and beyond. Now once again, I can see the Tiger phoenix arise from the parched ashes of many of its denuded and lifeless forests, because finally it pays to keep tigers alive and where they belong – in the wild.
Written by: Julian Matthews. Julian is Founder Chairman of Travel Operators for Tigers, a voluntary campaign to promote more responsible tourism practices in parks in India. Travelling with On the Go tours on your next wildlife holiday to India helps support this pioneering campaign. Visit the TOFT website for further details.